Friday, August 14, 2009

Wal-Mart's rural roots

That's one of the themes of a new book by Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. The Macmillan Press promo site for the book features these comments: "Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company, roared out of the rural South to change the way business is done. "

What caused me to go to seek more info. about the book was a "Fresh Air" interview with Prof. Lichtenstein, of UC Santa Barbara, in which he repeatedly used the word "rural" to refer to Wal-Mart's founding and culture, as well as to the home of its, well, "home office" (that is Wal-Mart speak for corporate headquarters) in Bentonville, Arkansas. In fact, partly thanks to the growth of Wal-Mart (but also due to the growth of corporations like Tyson Foods and JB Hunt Trucking), Bentonville can no longer fairly be characterized as rural by any measure . . . it's now part of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area. Benton County's population has grown more than 35% just since the 2000 Census. See other U.S. Census Bureau Quick Facts here.

For more on Lichtenstein's book, read this New York Times review.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,
Thanks for posting the link to the NYT article. As it indicates, Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Wal-MArt (HUP, May 2009) makes a thorough historical argument about Wal-Mart's Ozark roots, based on years of research in Northwest Arkansas. Keep in mind that this is a historical treatment; as you point out, Wal-Mart's home region has been one of the fastest-growing areas of the country for more than a decade!

A 2006 published version of Moreton's argument about the company's rural origins is available online at:

Her own summary of To Serve God and Wal-Mart is at:

Best regards, Pamela Voekel

Urk said...

Hi Lisa. I just found your blog and am enjoying it. I grew up in Fayetteville and am now a late in life grad student in Iowa,working on a dissertation about expressive & economic culture in NWA.

I agree that characterizing Northwest Arkansas, especially
Northwest Arkansas City" from Bella Vista down to Fayetteville as simply "rural" misses alot, not only in the current landscape but in the historical differences between that area and the rest of the Ozarks. This isn't to dispute Lichtenstein or Moreton's research as to suggest that words like "rural" can be more obscuring than illuminating in the kinds of conversations that take place in media treatments of these books. I think this is particularly true of the Ozarks, where the particular flavor of rurality associated with the area (the hillbilly trope) signifies timelessness, what Brooks Blevins called a (supposed) "land of contemporary ancestors." the popular association of rurality and stability makes things especially murky here, since it's the decades long breakdown of subsistence farming in the Ozarks that, throughout the 2oth century, provided the archetypal images for the tourists, the cheap land that brought midwestern retirees, and the displaced workers for Sam Walton's stores.

I think it's interesting that Lichtenstein, in that interview speaks of Bentonville and "nearby Fayetteville" as if they're distinctly separate towns. And they are distinct political entities of course. But you can drive from the first Wal-mart store on the Bentonville square, down to the new Supercenter on HWY 62 West in Fayetteville, without ever feeling like you've gone outside of a set of city limits. The current Northwest Arkansas landscape is fascinatingly unclassifiable, a mix of lingering rurality and suburbs with no urban core.